On Saturday, Michigan State defeated Michigan by a final score of 37-33 to keep the Paul Bunyan Trophy in East Lansing. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines for the second consecutive year, and for the 10th time in the last 14 meetings. It was also a win over the No. 6-ranked team in the country, and improved MSU’s record to 8-0 overall, and 5-0 in Big Ten Conference play, to begin the 2021 campaign.
Following the victory, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker — who became the first MSU head coach in program history to win his first two games against Michigan — was extremely proud of his team, as the Spartans fought through adversity and a 16-point deficit in the second half to eventually win the game.
“What a game, the game kind of speaks for itself,” Tucker said. “I was really proud of all of our players. One thing that we know about our guys is that they’re going to keep playing and they don’t quit. And there was never a time in the game when we felt like we were out of it. We never felt like we were overmatched. We felt like we needed to continue to execute better on both sides of the ball. We were able to make some adjustments and find a way to make some plays. We started to convert more on third down on offense and guys were playing extremely hard on defense. And obviously, we’ve got some playmakers who were able to make some plays.”
Tucker credited the full team for the victory, but he was impressed by the Michigan State fans at Spartan Stadium as well, keeping “The Woodshed” rocking all game long. Even when MSU got down by 16 points, the fans stayed in their seats and cheered the team on. That means a lot to Tucker and the Spartans.
“It was a team win and I’ll tell you what, our fans, they never gave up on us,” Tucker said. “No one left, they stayed in there down 16 (points) and kept helping us and pulling us through and that’s what Spartans do.”
Tucker has done a masterful job of turning Michigan State around and leading the Spartans to an 8-0 start. He is a legitimate national Coach of the Year candidate and, of course, there are rumors linking Tucker’s name to job openings, such as LSU, but he says this win over Michigan isn’t about him — it’s about Spartan Nation.
“Someone just asked me what this win means to me,” Tucker said. “It means — it’s not about me — it’s about Spartan Nation, our players, our staff, Michigan State University, all of our fans, all of our former players – the Spartan Dawgs — and all of our 500,000-plus living alumni across the country and around the world. We know how important this game is to all Spartans and we don’t take that lightly.”
Tucker also spoke about the locker room after the victory, calling the experience “special” and giving a glimpse of who was in there to celebrate and what the mood of the team was like, noting that players were dancing and taking pictures with the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
“That’s one of the things about football is the locker room, especially after a victory, there’s nothing like it because everyone is a part of it,” Tucker said. “You look around, you got players and coaches, you got trainers in there, you got academic support folks in there, administration is in there, we had former players in there. I mean obviously, recruits (were in there). So, it’s a moment to celebrate and to really just to take note of a huge accomplishment. It is not easy to win football games. It’s really difficult, especially when you play good teams. So, when you can get a win and you get in that locker room, there’s nothing like it. So, to see Paul (Bunyan) in there is special.”
With an undefeated record, and now a top-10 win on the resume, Tucker knows his team’s goals are all in from of them, and he believes this team is capable of a championship run. However, Tucker will keep his players focused on a one-game-at-a-time mentality, and the coaching staff will help the squad find its full potential — something Tucker believes the Spartans still have not played up to just yet.
“I don’t believe in self-imposed limitations,” Tucker said. “I’ve said this before publicly, our goal is to win every game on our schedule. Whether it’s home or away, or regardless of who it is, that’s our goal. Now whether we can do that or not, only time will tell. So what does success look like? I’ve been asked several times, success is us reaching our full potential as a football team, and we have not hit our ceiling yet, we still have room for improvement. And we have a tough schedule ahead. We’re going on the road next week, (against) a very strong team (at Purdue). And you know, it’s tough sledding. You need to be playing your best football in November, if you want to get anything done in terms of what you’re talking about (championships). And so we got a ways to go. What’s most important is what’s next, from our preparation this week — we got to rest and recover and we got to focus on our next opponent and take the show on the road.”
Kenneth Walker III shines
Michigan State was led by running back Kenneth Walker III, who gashed the Michigan defense for 197 yards and five touchdowns — the most rushing touchdowns ever scored against Michigan in a single game — while averaging 8.6 yards per carry. For his performance, Walker was named Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week.
Walker further cemented his Heisman Trophy candidacy and his head coach — along with everybody else in the country — took notice.
“Ken Walker, I don’t know what else I can say,” Tucker said.” This is a huge stage, the whole world’s watching. You got a chance to see what type of player he is, and, obviously, any recognition that he’s getting for Heisman consideration is well-deserved. Obviously, (the) offensive line, tight ends, wide receivers were doing a great job blocking. Obviously, he’s a difference-maker. So, just overall, a strong effort for our team. We’re in the hunt. We have a strong opponent next week (Purdue) and we need to go on to road and play good football, And we’ve got some things to improve upon, but obviously this is a game that we had to have. So, we were able to get it done.”
As for Walker himself, he remains as humble as ever. As always, he gives credit to his blockers first and foremost.
“I just gotta give credit to the offensive line, they did a great job tonight,” Walker said.
As for his spectacular performance, he was just happy to win as a team. Despite potentially having his “Heisman moment” against a top-10 opponent on a national stage, Walker isn’t worried about individual accolades.
“Going into the second half, we knew that we were going to have to start fast,” Walker said. “Coach Tucker made it apparent. He does a good job of keeping us going and (making sure we’re) intense so when we came out in the second half, we knew we were going to have to do that. Overall I don’t feel like it’s a Heisman moment, but I feel like it was just a great team win.”
While Walker is one of the best college football players on the field, the thing that really stands out about him is how quiet and reserved he is off of the field. Despite his dominance on the field, Walker keeps things in perspective.
“I’m super excited,” Walker said. “I know I’m holding it in right now, but I’m super excited...I’m a bit shy.”
As for his first time playing against Michigan, Walker — who transferred in from Wake Forest during the offseason — learned about the history of the rivalry through during the last couple of week of practice.
“I believe it was a crazy game — super intense,” Walker said. “Fans came out. I believe this win is very important. Even during the bye week we watched a lot of history on the rivalry. I didn’t know much at the time. But when I was able to see the history of it, and the alumni were able to talk to us, it meant that much more.”
When Michigan had a big lead, Walker and the Spartans knew not to panic and to just “keep chopping.” Tucker has trained his team to stay neutral in every situation — not to get too high or too low — and take it one play at a team. The team has fully bought into that mentality.
“I just knew, keep choppin,’” Walker said. “We go over it every practice, every game. That’s our motto — keep choppin’. I knew that was going to be what we had to do.”
Payton Thorne overcomes early mistakes to lead Michigan State to victory
Quarterback Payton Thorne struggled early with two interceptions in the first quarter, but battled back through the adversity to lead the Spartans to a hard-earned victory.
“It’s a huge win,” Thorne said. “Every week’s big from here on out — every week’s big to begin with in college football — so it was a great win. Our defense played well, too. All phases of the game I thought was solid today and good enough for us to win. I’m sure we’ll watch the film, as you do every week, and say, ‘We’ll clean this up, clean that up.’ But getting out of here with a win is huge, and being able to win on our home field in front of our fans is awesome, and (the fans) were fantastic today all day.”
Thorne knows the magnitude of this game and this rivalry, and he was happy to get it done for this coaches and teammates, but also for the former Michigan State players, as this game continues to have a significant impact on them ever after their playing days.
“When you come here, you know the importance of Paul Bunyan,” Thorne said. “He sits right in our lobby all year — you see him all the time. We play for each other and we play for our coaches. But most importantly, we play for the former players that have been here. It means so much to them because they’ve had a taste of it and they know what it feels like. I had them in mind all game to be honest, you don’t want to let those guys down, you know they are watching.”
Thorne was also happy to be able to get this win with his lifelong friend, wide receiver Jayden Reed. Reed had six catches for 80 yards and came up with a few clutch plays throughout the game, including a fourth-down catch and a two-point conversion.
“This is what I’ve dreamed of my whole life, to play in a game like this,” Thorne said. “And to do it with my lifelong friend (Reed) like that, what more can you ask? I’m definitely blessed.”
Speaking of Reed, who was a team captain this week, he knew how much this victory meant to the program and Michigan State fans everywhere.
“This one means a ton,” Reed said. “It’s bigger than the team. Alumni, fans, everybody in Spartan Nation, this win means a lot. We take pride in this game and every year we take pride in it. We work as hard as we can to come out on top. We’ll continue to work hard and focus on next week...I’m 2-0 against Michigan now, so it feels amazing.”